P.Sainath, People's Archive of Rural India

Special: P. Sainath’s award-winning series on rural India’s ‘Thirst Economy’

This series on rural India’s water crisis won P. Sainath a World Media Summit award under the category of Exemplary News Professionals in Developing Countries. It zeroes in on the stark contrasts in the consumption and access to water between the rich and poor to illustrate the alarming trend of inequalities in India and abroad.


Part -1: The Deep Water Crisis
The water-crisis in Maharashtra — which only gets highlighted in summer — saw many thousands of borewells drilled in just the Marathwada region in the first three months of this year. The truck-mounted borewell rig was omnipresent in the fields. And the borewell itself was a major source of debt, if not of water, in the rural districts. Most of the rigs we saw rumbling along the roads turned out to be from Tamil Nadu. (Some were from Andhra Pradesh). “They seem mostly to be from a single town,” a senior geologist of the government of Maharashtra had then told The Hindu. That town, it turned out, was Tiruchengode in Namakkal district of Tamil Nadu.

Part – 2: Drilling holes in the Thirst Economy
Borewells cost money. “This could be the biggest growth industry in the water-crisis districts,” says one administrator. “For the rig-makers, rig-owners and drillers — this is boom-time. The farmer pays up, whether the wells yield water or not.” The borewell industry is a key sector of the Thirst Economy and is worth billions. The unchecked guzzling of groundwater in Maharashtra has even seen a few, but worrying instances, of striking what are called “paleo-historic storages,” as the wells go deeper. That is, water which is many millennia old.

Part – 3: Tankers and the economy of thirst
Thirst is Marathwada’s greatest crop this season. Forget sugarcane. Thirst, human and industrial, eclipses anything else. Those harvesting it reap tens of millions of rupees each day across the region. The van loads of dried-out cane you see on the roads could end up at cattle camps as fodder. The countless “tankers” you see on the same roads are making it to the towns, villages and industries for profit. Water markets are the biggest things around. Tankers are their symbol.

Part – 4: When water flows like money
The brisk trade in water is on around the clock across Osmanabad district. Scarcity drives the rates upwards. The government has requisitioned 720 wells of water. It pays the owners of each of these Rs.12,000 a month. Water from these is free for the public. But the long distances and the huge crowds at these points can be daunting. Which means privateers rule. With them, you bargain by the litre. The price can go well above Rs.200 for 500 litres. The rate spikes sharply if you are buying small quantities. And it will all get worse in coming days. Every colony now has someone with a borewell or other source, milking the scarcity. Here, water flows like money.

Part – 5: How the other half dries
The blue bloods do it big. Each apartment has its own private swimming pool, each of them ranging from 9,000 to 22,000 square feet also offers its own private swimming pool. In yet other buildings coming up, the duplex penthouses will each have, you guessed it: private swimming pools. These are just in Pune alone. All of them with other amenities needing still more water. A small but proud trend — with the promise of more to come. All of them in regions of a State lamenting their greatest drought in 40 years. In Maharashtra, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s view, one of our worst droughts ever. In a State where thousands of villages now depend on visits from water tankers.

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